Nellie Ortiz | 10/16/2019

Personas at Play

You might have a heard a thing or two about Design Studio PHL’s Collab series. Earlier this year, we decided to take things to the next level and invite the community to come play at the studio for a Design Brew event. Instead of a series of presentations, we had our guests participate in three lightning rounds of Collabs hosted by myself, architect extraordinaire Erin Chan and master storyteller Ashley Pulli. It was a night not to be missed — filled with laughter, beautiful sketches and lots of off-brand Play Doh.

My part of the evening focused on exploring the meaning of empathy in the digital workplace. A designer’s primary job is to understand who they are designing for and how to solve problems in a way that makes sense to others. A challenge we all face is not allowing our personal biases and assumptions to seep into our solutions. The other challenge we see in our work is crafting solutions that work for all types of people — some vastly different from each other, many very different from ourselves.

During my session, we learned how to take it back to basics and approach design through empathy with a Sketchercise (a sketching exercise, that is)! Each participant received a pair of cards: one character card and one experience card. Then they had 10 minutes to sketch some ideas for a digital experience using the pair. To make this a little interesting, we took it a bit to the extreme by creating some unique scenarios where the usual rules of the real world did not apply. For instance:

  • Have you ever thought of what a dog would need in a doodle app? Would the dog use the app as a primary form of communication with its owner, or is the pup just looking for a coveted spot next to the finger paintings on the fridge?
  • What if a tech-savvy septuagenarian is looking to craft a sick playlist for when her grandchildren stay over? Girl’s gotta protect her reputation for exquisite taste in music.
  • Now what if a cat is looking to help its owner shop for its picky self by creating very detailed shopping lists? We should probably think through some physical limitations, like a lack of opposable thumbs.

Once our participants thought they had solved their silly situations, we asked them to swap character cards with someone else to get to know a new character. If they started sketching a music app for Gertie, the tech-savvy grandma, how could they change the experience to accommodate Ashley the Astronaut, who doesn’t have reliable Wi-Fi out there on Mars?

Whether the participants were seasoned designers or in an entirely different field, they came up with some incredible ideas once they relaxed and embraced the absurdity of the task at hand. This activity not only gave non-designers a taste of how experiences are conceptualized, but also reminded us that at the end of the day, design is not magic. It’s simply humans creating for other humans (and sometimes cats and dogs).

Photography by Matt Lewis